Detroit Federation of Teachers Interim President Ivy Bailey addresses the media in front of the federal courthouse in downtown Detroit.
Detroit Federation of Teachers Interim President Ivy Bailey addresses the media in front of the federal courthouse in downtown Detroit. (Photo: Todd McInturf/Detroit News via AP)

The Sidley Austin lawyers who this week helped file a suit claiming that Michigan is failing to provide literacy for students in Detroit schools believe the case will give the U.S. Supreme Court the chance to decide there is a constitutional right to literacy.

And the litigation team behind the case has the legal firepower to fight the matter all the way to the nation’s top court.

Sidley chairman and noted appellate litigator Carter Phillips, whose firm is handling the case pro bono, is one of seven Sidley lawyers signed onto the suit, bringing the attorney with the most Supreme Court arguments of any lawyer currently in private practice, 83, into the fold.

The 130-page complaint, filed Tuesday in federal court in Detroit, alleges that Michigan has underinvested in Detroit’s public schools to the point that there is no other possible educational outcome than the current dismal results. The suit claims that at one Detroit high school, Osborn MST, a mere 1.8 percent of 11th grade students were proficient in English.

The class action is the first of its kind seeking to recognize a constitutional right to literacy, said Michael Kelley, the head of Sidley’s Los Angeles office and a pro bono advocate for students in the case.

“We think it’s important to achieve that result to establish that there is a federal constitutional right to literacy,” Kelley said. “Whether these rights are vindicated at the district court there in Detroit, or in the appellate court or frankly in the U.S. Supreme Court, the lawyers here at Sidley will be there.”

Sidley was approached a few months ago about the case by the large pro bono firm Public Counsel, which is based in Los Angeles and handles a variety of cases around the country.

In addition to Phillips, six other Sidley attorneys signed the complaint, and they come from all levels of the 1,779-lawyer firm’s litigation department.

Kelley is a trial lawyer and former head of Sidley’s litigation group in Los Angeles, where Joshua Anderson is an appellate partner and colleague Mark Haddad serves as co-leader of Sidley’s global appellate practice. Scott Lassar, a former U.S. attorney in Chicago, is now global co-leader of Sidley’s white-collar practice. Tacy Flint, a Windy City-based litigator with Supreme Court experience, is a former clerk to Justice Stephen Breyer. And litigation associate Jennifer Wheeler in Chicago is a former clerk to U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang of the the Northern District of Illinois.

Kelley said that Sidley and Public Counsel worked together to develop the legal strategy and compile the facts that are in the complaint. Other lawyers working the case include Bruce Miller of Detroit’s Miller Cohen and a pair of constitutional legal scholars: Evan Caminker of the University of Michigan Law School and Erwin Chemerinsky of the University of California, Irvine School of Law.

The suit targets Michigan Gov. Richard Snyder and members of the state board of education, alleging that Detroit public schools have been administered by the state for 11 of the past 15 years due to a number of emergency situations, including the Motor City’s municipal bankruptcy.

The facts in the case mostly pertain to the low-ranking educational outcomes for the students at five Detroit public schools named in the complaint. Many of the schools do not have reliable heat or air conditioning, meaning students can on some days see their breath, as others sweat through 90-degree heat, according to the complaint. Many buildings are infested with mice, and teachers (many of whom are new to teaching) are often not given a curriculum, leaving them to search Google for a teaching program, the complaint says.

“It certainly shocked me when we found out these details and facts,” Sidley’s Anderson said. “As a parent … I can’t imagine how parents must feel bringing children to these schools and hearing what happens and goes on there, and what teachers must do under these conditions.”

The constitutional argument largely relies on the 1982 Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe, which said denying a discrete group of children the opportunity to obtain literacy necessary to participate in college and career denies them rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

“Our constitutional commitments to individual liberty, equality and participatory democracy are empty unless all children enjoy equal opportunity to attain the basic literacy skills necessary to participate in the economic, political and civic life of the nation,” states the plaintiffs’ complaint.

Earlier this week, Debevoise & Plimpton secured a hard-fought victory in a decade-long pro bono case in which a federal judge ruled that Connecticut’s public schools had failed students in the state’s poorest districts.

The Sidley Austin lawyers who this week helped file a suit claiming that Michigan is failing to provide literacy for students in Detroit schools believe the case will give the U.S. Supreme Court the chance to decide there is a constitutional right to literacy.

And the litigation team behind the case has the legal firepower to fight the matter all the way to the nation’s top court.

Sidley chairman and noted appellate litigator Carter Phillips, whose firm is handling the case pro bono, is one of seven Sidley lawyers signed onto the suit, bringing the attorney with the most Supreme Court arguments of any lawyer currently in private practice, 83, into the fold.

The 130-page complaint, filed Tuesday in federal court in Detroit, alleges that Michigan has underinvested in Detroit’s public schools to the point that there is no other possible educational outcome than the current dismal results. The suit claims that at one Detroit high school, Osborn MST, a mere 1.8 percent of 11th grade students were proficient in English.

The class action is the first of its kind seeking to recognize a constitutional right to literacy, said Michael Kelley, the head of Sidley’s Los Angeles office and a pro bono advocate for students in the case.

“We think it’s important to achieve that result to establish that there is a federal constitutional right to literacy,” Kelley said. “Whether these rights are vindicated at the district court there in Detroit, or in the appellate court or frankly in the U.S. Supreme Court, the lawyers here at Sidley will be there.”

Sidley was approached a few months ago about the case by the large pro bono firm Public Counsel, which is based in Los Angeles and handles a variety of cases around the country.

In addition to Phillips, six other Sidley attorneys signed the complaint, and they come from all levels of the 1,779-lawyer firm’s litigation department.

Kelley is a trial lawyer and former head of Sidley’s litigation group in Los Angeles, where Joshua Anderson is an appellate partner and colleague Mark Haddad serves as co-leader of Sidley’s global appellate practice. Scott Lassar, a former U.S. attorney in Chicago, is now global co-leader of Sidley’s white-collar practice. Tacy Flint, a Windy City-based litigator with Supreme Court experience, is a former clerk to Justice Stephen Breyer. And litigation associate Jennifer Wheeler in Chicago is a former clerk to U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang of the the Northern District of Illinois.

Kelley said that Sidley and Public Counsel worked together to develop the legal strategy and compile the facts that are in the complaint. Other lawyers working the case include Bruce Miller of Detroit’s Miller Cohen and a pair of constitutional legal scholars: Evan Caminker of the University of Michigan Law School and Erwin Chemerinsky of the University of California, Irvine School of Law .

The suit targets Michigan Gov. Richard Snyder and members of the state board of education, alleging that Detroit public schools have been administered by the state for 11 of the past 15 years due to a number of emergency situations, including the Motor City’s municipal bankruptcy.

The facts in the case mostly pertain to the low-ranking educational outcomes for the students at five Detroit public schools named in the complaint. Many of the schools do not have reliable heat or air conditioning, meaning students can on some days see their breath, as others sweat through 90-degree heat, according to the complaint. Many buildings are infested with mice, and teachers (many of whom are new to teaching) are often not given a curriculum, leaving them to search Google for a teaching program, the complaint says.

“It certainly shocked me when we found out these details and facts,” Sidley’s Anderson said. “As a parent … I can’t imagine how parents must feel bringing children to these schools and hearing what happens and goes on there, and what teachers must do under these conditions.”

The constitutional argument largely relies on the 1982 Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe, which said denying a discrete group of children the opportunity to obtain literacy necessary to participate in college and career denies them rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

“Our constitutional commitments to individual liberty, equality and participatory democracy are empty unless all children enjoy equal opportunity to attain the basic literacy skills necessary to participate in the economic, political and civic life of the nation,” states the plaintiffs’ complaint.

Earlier this week, Debevoise & Plimpton secured a hard-fought victory in a decade-long pro bono case in which a federal judge ruled that Connecticut’s public schools had failed students in the state’s poorest districts.